Friday 16 September 2011

George Smiley's Last Stand: The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré; UK & US First Editions (Hodder & Stoughton / Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)

We're approaching the end of John le Carré/George Smiley Week here on Existential Ennui, which I've embarked upon to commemorate, or celebrate, or just plain "big up" the British release of the new movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which hits cinemas today. And having covered all three parts of le Carré's "Karla Trilogy" – of which Tinker, Tailor... is the first instalment – today we turn to the final le Carré to feature Smiley – although it's a rather different proposition to its predecessors...

The Secret Pilgrim was published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK in 1991. Now, the thing to note here is a word that I haven't included in that preceding sentence, one which I invariably trot out when introducing the hardback books I blog about: "first". The reason for that being, although this edition of The Secret Pilgrim was the first British one, it wasn't the first one in the world. Unusually in le Carré's backlist, that honour goes to the American first edition:

Which was published by Knopf, also in 1991, but in January, some months before the UK edition. This can be established courtesy of a number on the dustjacket back flap of the American edition – which sports the code "1/91" – and the copyright page in the British edition:

So the US edition is in fact the true first. Of course, none of that quite gets to the nub of the matter, namely why I own two copies of the same book – although on past – and indeed recent – evidence, I suppose that shouldn't be terribly surprising. Fact is, I picked up the British first edition for a quid in a Lewes charity shop, and then shortly after that spotted the American first on a cheap books table outside a Cecil Court bookshop. Suffice to say, since I'd always rather have a true first edition (and I prefer the deckled page edges of the US edition and its R. D. Scudellari-designed dustjacket), I'll be releasing the British one back into the wilds shortly, donating it to my mum's forthcoming Beckenham Book Fair, which is taking place at Beckenham Baptist Church, Elm Road, on 12 November, and which was inspired in some small part by my books obsession.

The Secret Pilgrim does, as I say, mark George Smiley's last literary hurrah (to date, anyway), but it's actually narrated in the first person by Ned (no surname), a British intelligence operative in the twilight of his career whose task it is to train the next generation of spies. And to their Sarratt passing-out dinner at the end of their training course, Ned has invited as guest of honour... George Smiley.

I haven't read The Secret Pilgrim myself, but my estimable friend and colleague – and noted le Carré aficionado – Roly Allen, has, and reckons it's "a minor work in the canon, but very good fun and it fleshes out the Circus mythology very nicely. One gets the impression that le Carré wanted to use up a bunch of short story ideas (based, apparently, on real incidents) and give Smiley a final (final) goodbye (Smiley retires more times than Frank Sinatra) and hit upon Ned's career structure as a way of doing so."

Roly continues:

It does of course touch upon the usual le Carré themes. There's that clever sensitive young lady with the nice bum and an overdeveloped conscience, again! (Actually – yay – there are two! And one of them is sexually adventuresome!) There's the remote house on the Atlantic Coast, again! There are the (two!) stories hingeing on is-he-one-of-ours-or-one-of-theirs, again! There's that Bildungsroman-of-the-middle-aged-man trope, again! 

But hey, who cares. It's jolly good nonetheless. And Smiley has one line which has really stuck with me – which is his take on the end of the Cold War – which a lot of people would do well to remember, especially when they are erecting statues of Ronald Reagan in London and not mentioning Gorbachev once. "It was their emperor, not ours, who had the nerve to mount the rostrum and declare that he had no clothes". Ultimately the Cold War ended because the Russians chose to end it: an "impossible event" which many people still cannot quite compute. (Not that Gorbachev can't have been a saint: he was of course a loyal party functionary for three decades before glasnost, etc).

And there you have it: The Secret Pilgrim in a nutshell. Thanks to Roly for his learned and witty insights, and with that, le Carré/Smiley Week is almost done. But not quite. Because tonight I'm off to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the cinema, so I'll be posting some thoughts on that over the weekend. I'm not sure when precisely, because I'll be spending part of Saturday and Sunday in Essex dressed as a geography teacher and dancing to '80s hits (don't ask). All being well, though, you can expect a final missive sometime over the next day or two...

Wednesday 14 September 2011

John le Carré's Smiley's People (Karla Trilogy #3): a Review of the Novel (Hodder & Stoughton, 1979) and the BBC Television Adaptation (1982)

It's John le Carré/George Smiley Week here on Existential Ennui – a week's worth of posts celebrating the release of the new movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And following on from yesterday's review of the second part of le Carré's "Karla Trilogy", 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy, today it's the turn of the third and final part in the Quest for Karla: Smiley's People. But I won't just be reviewing the novel – oh no. Much as I did with this post on Tinker, Tailor..., I'll also be reviewing its 1982 BBC TV adaptation, starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Exciting stuff, and no mistake.

First published in hardback in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1979, Smiley's People begins with George Smiley out in the cold once more, following his brief tenure as head of the Circus (le Carré's name for Britain's intelligence service) in The Honourable Schoolboy. Now replaced by Sir Saul Enderby, Smiley is reactivated by Enderby and Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office Oliver Lacon when General Vladimir, a Russian emigre of whom Smiley was chief case officer (his "vicar", to use the espionage nomenclature) is murdered on his way to a crash meet. Lacon is keen for Smiley to sweep the whole mess under the carpet, but Smiley has a different agenda, one that will again lead him inexorably towards his shadowy nemesis, the head of Moscow Centre, Soviet spymaster Karla.

The book and the television series of Smiley's People are so much of a piece that it makes more sense to discuss them together rather than separately and consecutively. Indeed, it could be argued that – and unlike, I'd suggest, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its TV spin-off – the Beeb adaptation of Smiley's People is the superior beast. While le Carré did have some involvement with the 1979 telly version of Tinker, Tailor... – adding the closing scene between Smiley and his wife, Ann, for one – for Smiley's People he took on the role of co-screenwriter (with John Hopkins). He's also, I believe, stated that Alec Guinness's portrayal of Smiley in Tinker, Tailor... influenced the spy's characterization in the novel of Smiley's People.

Certainly the majority of the scenes in the Smiley's People TV series and a good chunk of the dialogue are lifted verbatim from the page. But whereas with Tinker, Tailor... the TV screen did little to enhance the novel's introspective nature – in fact slightly smothered it – Smiley's People more readily lends itself to live action, as, instead of squirreling himself away in a Paddington hotel room to pore over old files, here George by necessity must do a lot of the legwork himself, practicing his tradecraft as he trots back and forth to Paris, Hamburg and Switzerland. He's never been so animated in the Karla Trilogy – in all senses – as he is in Smiley's People: determined, driven, obsessed with the hunt for Karla. This is Smiley on the warpath.

His quest leads him to seek out old contacts, among them the flamboyant Hungarian Toby Esterhase – himself ejected from the Circus and now making a living trading in fake artworks – and the Russian expert Connie Sachs, gone to seed in a tumbledown country shack, addled by booze yet still able to conjure up the past under duress. Smiley exploits his former associates mercilessly; some are eventually happy to help the legendary George Smiley, others less so, but all are pressed into service irrespective of their reluctance or current arrangements.

But in many respects Smiley is himself a pawn, resurrected as a waddling Cold Warrior by Saul Enderby and Oliver Lacon, yet in danger of being disavowed should his mission go too far off piste. In one memorable scene in both the novel and the TV series he's interrogated over dinner by Lacon – not so much to extract a progress report as to provide a spot of relationship counselling. Lacon's marriage is failing – pressures of the job and all that – so he elicits Smiley's advice, little realising that Smiley's own marriage is over – here more finally than before; prior to setting off on the final leg of his European tour, George visits Ann in Cornwall, resulting in a clifftop conversation that's as terminal as it is chilly.

I mentioned at the end of the post on The Honourable Schoolboy how it's become clear to me that each of the novels in the Karla Trilogy hinges on relationships with women. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley is unbalanced by the Circus mole's affair with his philandering wife, and consequently blinded to the mole's treachery – remember that it's as a result of a past, pivotal encounter with a younger Karla (played, in the TV Tinker, Tailor..., by Patrick Stewart, who briefly reprises his role in Smiley's People) that the mole is eventually directed to begin that affair, Karla having been tipped off by the aforementioned cigarette lighter, inscribed to George from Ann, which Karla pockets – while in The Honourable Schoolboy, Jerry Westerby is sent into a tailspin by Lizzie Worthington.

In Smiley's People, the central role of the women in these men's lives is made explicit. Karla is attempting to craft a "legend" – a falsified background – for a female agent, exploiting the Russian expat community in Paris. Who this "agent" is, and why Karla has had to resort to such unorthodox methods, is at the heart of the story, and in a way is a reversal of George's betrayal by Ann. As if to underline this theme of romantic or emotional betrayal, in the closing moments of both book and TV adaptation the cigarette lighter comes back into play, a symbol of the damage inflicted by Smiley and Karla upon one another and on their relationships. Suitably, aptly, in the end the lighter is discarded. In Smiley's People – as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy – a wayward woman proves the downfall of a fractured man; that the trilogy was begun shortly after the breakdown of le Carré's own marriage cannot be a coincidence.

Given le Carré's close involvement in the making of the TV Smiley's People it's perhaps unsurprising how faithful it is to the book. Nevertheless, on occasion the transposition from page to screen is arresting, not least in the use of locations: the German shipyard where Smiley goes to find an associate of Vladimir's, Otto Leipzig, is so precisely realised – or, more accurately, matched – that it was just as I had pictured it in the novel. There are minor alterations: since the BBC skipped adapting The Honourable Schoolboy (reportedly due to budgetary concerns over the Far East locations), aspects of Sam Collins's (minor) role are inherited by Lauder Strickland, lent a delicious obsequiousness by the brilliant Bill Paterson. But by and large, everything in the novel ends up on the screen.

To my mind, perhaps the best sequence in the television series comes when Smiley, Strickland, Peter Guillam and another Circus colleague, Molly Meakin (played by Lucy Fleming, niece of James Bond creator Ian Fleming), are gathered together by Saul Enderby in his office to chew over the available evidence. (In the novel it's merely Smiley, Enderby and Sam Collins, and the meeting takes place in a Knightsbridge hotel.) As Enderby, Barry Foster puts in just this one appearance in the series, but by Christ he makes it count. Pompous, louche, self-assured, but still sharp, Foster's Enderby is a scene-stealer of a performance: part genial host, part terrifying headmaster figure, with a neat line in withering put-downs. At one point, observed by Guillam, he caresses Molly's neck and shoulders, an action that accrues an added piquant significance when you recall that, in The Honourable Schoolboy, Meakin is the reciprocated object of Guillam's affections.

Director Simon Langton's staging of the Enderby office scene is a masterclass of slyly exchanged glances, tacit acknowledgments and, in the case of George, feigned engrossment in a file. As for Alec Guinness as Smiley, his inhabiting of Smiley's skin is so complete as to make the tissue-thin demarcation between the two almost unnoticeable. More than ever before, Guinness is George Smiley, both in the adaptation and in the source text. One thing's for sure: Gary Oldman has a hell of a lot to live up to in the new Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy film.

Though Smiley's People marked the end of George Smiley's literary career as a leading man, it wasn't quite his final appearance. That honour goes to the next book I'll be looking at, a much later novel from 1991, which I have in two editions. But which was the first...?

Tuesday 13 September 2011

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré (Karla Trilogy #2): a Review (Hodder & Stoughton, 1977)

From a meandering missive on the first instalment in John le Carré's "Karla Trilogy", le Carré/George Smiley Week continues with a review of the second novel in that triumvirate:

The Honourable Schoolboy was first published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1977, but despite being a direct sequel to 1974's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it's a rather different kettle of fish to its illustrious, magisterial predecessor. Following the events of the former, here we find the Circus – le Carré's location-inspired name for MI6 (based, as it is, in London's Cambridge Circus) – in a state of extreme disrepair – its upper echelons excised, a shadow of its former self. The mole hunt and its denouement have left George Smiley in temporary charge of the service – inherited from Percy Alleline, who in turn inherited it from the deceased Control – assisted by Peter Guillam, Russian expert Connie Sachs and China watcher Doc di Salis, as well as shady ex-Circus type Sam Collins.

It's Smiley's obsession with Karla – head of Moscow Centre, and the man who placed the mole at the heart of the Circus – which drives the novel. Lest we forget, it was on Karla's direction that the Circus mole began an affair with Smiley's wife, Ann, after Karla trousered Smiley's inscribed-by-Ann cigarette lighter during a years-distant meeting between the two. On the wall of Smiley's office there now hangs...

...a passport photograph by the look of it, but blown up far beyond its natural size, so that it had a grainy and some said spectral look. One of the Treasury boys spotted it during an ad-hoc conference about scrapping the operational bank accounts.

'Is that Control's portrait by the by?' he had asked of Peter Guillam, purely as a bit of social chit chat... Control, other names still unknown, was the legend of the place. He had been Smiley's guide and mentor for all of thirty years. Smiley had actually buried him, they said: for the very secret, like the very rich, have a tendency to die unmourned.

'No, it bloody well isn't Control,' Guillam the cupbearer had retorted, in that off-hand, supercilious way of his. 'It's Karla.'

Based in the hollowed-out ghost-ship that is now the Circus, Smiley, Connie and di Salis's efforts to unravel Karla's far-reaching conspiratorial tendrils (and the Circus mole's treachery) and salvage what they can of the service's networks of agents make for effortless reading. But Smiley at al aren't the primary focus of The Honourable Schoolboy. The novel's ostensible lead – and the "schoolboy" of the title – is in fact former newspaperman and Circus stringer Jerry Westerby. Dispatched by Smiley to Hong Kong, Westerby follows the trail of money that ultimately leads to Karla, a trail that takes Westerby to Cambodia and Thailand and involves a Mexican mercenary, a Chinese billionaire, and the paramour of both those individuals, Lizzie Worthington, a femme fatale who will prove to be Westerby's undoing.

The Honourable Schoolboy is a novel that divides opinion. While some appreciate the depth of characterization le Carré brings to Jerry Westerby, others find Westerby's story a distraction from the goings-on at the Circus. I must admit that I fell into the latter camp whilst reading the novel, finding Smiley and co.'s patient picking-apart of Karla's conspiracies more interesting than Westerby's travails. But on reflection, and at a little distance, though the Far East sequences are densely written, and the confused, fuming Westerby a difficult proposition as a lead, in the end his exploits are intrinsic to the novel, lending it a richness and profundity that makes The Honourable Schoolboy a complex but rewarding piece of fiction.

Unlike Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, British first editions of The Honourable Schoolboy are readily available and can be had for less than a tenner, although if buying online via AbeBooks, Amazon Marketplace or eBay, it's worth checking with the seller that what they're offering is indeed the first edition. As I outlined in this post, a lot of the copies listed as the first online are missing a price on the dustjacket front flap, and have white endpapers as opposed to the map endpapers you can see here. I now believe my assumption in that rather ill-tempered post – that the lack of price and blank endpapers signifies a book club edition – was mistaken; I think it merely signifies an export edition. But even so, I know which version I prefer.

One thing that has become clear to me through reading all three parts of the Karla Trilogy is how the plot – and much of the emotional impact – in each hinges on the main players' relationship with a woman. I'll be exploring that further in the next post, which will be on the third and final novel in the "Quest for Karla", 1979's Smiley's People, with a special emphasis on its 1982 BBC television adaptation...

Monday 12 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (Karla Trilogy #1): a British First Edition... and a British First Edition (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974)

This Friday sees the release of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's new adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And since le Carré is an author I've returned to a few times on Existential Ennui (click on his tag at the bottom of this post to locate previous entries), and Tinker, Tailor... is among the best books I've ever read, this week's posts will be exclusively dedicated both to le Carré and to the novelist's most famous creation, George Smiley, star of Tinker, Tailor... and its sequels, 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy and 1979's Smiley's People (not to mention many other novels besides). Together, those three books form the "Karla Trilogy" – or "Quest for Karla" – and over the coming days I'll be reviewing the second and third instalments in that trilogy – with a special focus on the 1982 television adaptation of the latter – as well as taking a look at the final le Carré novel to feature Smiley.

But first, this:

A British first edition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1974. Now, regular readers might recall my having blogged about this magnificent book – in this particular edition – before. Most recently that was in this post, in which I reviewed the novel – although in truth that "review" consisted of little more than a hastily assembled string of nouns – and then banged on about its 1979 BBC TV adaptation; needless to say this is precisely the blueprint I intend to pursue with Smiley's People later this week. But I also blogged about the book in this post, in which I examined various aspects of the British first edition – its cover design, photography and so forth – along with its collectibility and value at that point in time.

So how come I'm now showing you another first edition? Well, while the copy of the first I showcased before – which I bought on Amazon Marketplace last year – is in generally good nick, it does have a fold running vertically down the front of the dustjacket:

Despite this flaw, I was perfectly happy with this copy. But then more recently I happened to be browsing Amazon Marketplace and spied (ba-dum, tish) a very cheap copy – as in, a couple of quid – of what I suspected might also be a first edition (the item description was somewhat minimal). So I took a punt, and it turned out it was indeed the first edition – and first impression (the Hodder first went through at least three printings, later printings of which can be identified by the words "Second impression" or "Third impression" directly after the "First printed 1974" in the copyright text block). Result.

See, while British first editions of the novels either side of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are in fairly plentiful supply (with the exception of the three novels from the beginning of le Carré's career and one or two more recent efforts), firsts of Tinker, Tailor... itself have become rather scarce. That might be down to it being widely regarded as le Carré's best novel – perhaps rivalled only by 1963's The Spy Who Cam in from the Cold – but I suspect it might also be because, back in 1974, there hadn't been an espionage novel from the author for six years. The book immediately preceding Tinker, Tailor..., 1971's The Naive and Sentimental Lover, was an autobiographical work written in the wake of the breakdown of le Carré's marriage; his last spy novel, A Small Town in Germany, was published in 1968. So his return to the genre might explain the multiple printings of Tinker, Tailor... and consequent scarcity of the true first.

Whatever the case, in recent weeks, with the new film imminent, prices for the first of Tinker, Tailor... have skyrocketed. Copies on eBay are currently troubling the £150 mark, and could well go higher. Which leaves me with something of a dilemma: what to do with the additional copy of the first I own – and indeed, which one to keep even if I do decide to sell. Both copies have their merits: the "newer" copy doesn't have the vertical fold in the dustjacket that the "older" one does, but it does have more edgewear and chipping on the jacket:

On the other hand, the page edges of the original copy are a little foxed (and the publisher's-stain on the top edges more pronounced), and the text block is cleaner and brighter in the more recent copy:

And while the indicia is the same in both:

The endpapers are a light peach in the more recent copy and – possibly due to where or how it's been stored – a pronounced orange in the original one:

Curiously, they also feel thicker in the original, as if a heavier paper stock were used. The cases, however, are virtually identical:

So, I'm in two minds as to what to do. Or, more accurately, three or four minds. Do I sell one? If so, which one? Do I keep both? Or – and on previous evidence this is the most likely outcome – do I dither ineffectually until the moment has passed? What say you, readers?*

While we await the answer on that one, let's move on to the next post in le Carré/Smiley Week, which will be on the sequel to Tinker, Tailor..., 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy...

* Belatedly, I decided to sell the first copy. The eBay listing can be found here.